An Honest Look: 5 Questions to Ask Yourself when Journaling for Self-Improvement

What are some questions you can ask yourself to improve your journaling?

The name Marcus Aurelius conjures anything from the stately ancient Roman buildings to Richard Harris’ portrayal in the 2000 film Gladiator. 

Today, he’s probably best known for his private journals, known as Meditations, as he campaigned through modern-day Austria. And for his Stoicism.

Meditations gives us keen insight into the questions we should ask ourselves whether we are journaling, meditating, or in therapy. They give us an example of someone who is essentially having a conversation with himself. The “you” Aurelius is addressing is himself. 

Thankfully, a lot of what he says is good advice, no matter what way you look at it. 

In particular, Meditations provide a starting point for those of us who couldn’t or wouldn’t look into ourselves before. Anyone who’s has anxiety, depression, trauma, abuse, or other mental illnesses knows exactly what it’s like to look inside yourself and only find either a void or a monster. 

If what you see is a void or a monster, then it’s even harder to form your own opinions or principles. So, part of this post is to help you ask the questions you need to answer to determine who you are. 

Question 1: What have you learned from the people in your life? 

From my grandfather Verbs I learned good morals and the government of my temper.

Marcus Aurelius

Aurelius’ account of major influences in his own life makes up Meditations’ first section. There are 17 subsections here—he clearly had an excellent memory. Even more amazing is the fact he remembers positive things about each person or groups of persons. 

Our minds remember only the bad things that have happened. Negative biases can help preserve us and keep us alive (which is why it’s our brain’s knee-jerk reaction). But they can also ensure we remember nothing else.

Who in your life has made an impact? Aurelius mentions everyone from parents, grandparents, cousins, teachers, and even the gods. Start with just one of those people and write something specific they’ve taught you.

Try to put everything in a positive light. It’s too easy to think about the negatives.

Question 2: How do you interact with yourself and with the world? 

We ought to check in the course of our thoughts everything that is without a purpose and useless, bust most of all meddling and maliciousness.

Marcus Aurelius

Technically, these are two separate questions. However, your viewpoint on one subject influences how you view the other. 

If you, like many with mental illness or trauma, see yourself negatively, you have similar viewpoints about the world. 

Determining where you are in your opinions on both yourself and the world will establish what you need to work on. This way, you can reverse negative thoughts, get rid of false beliefs, and stop the nocebo effect. 

So, how do you view yourself? Do you see yourself as a rational human being with a divine spark? Do you see someone who should just be grateful he has air to breathe? How do you speak to yourself? Take care of yourself? 

These are questions you have to answer throughout your life and they aren’t necessarily the questions they taught you to ask yourself. “They” of course can be anyone from mentors, schoolteacher, parents, pastors, religious guides, etc.

Once you figure out how you view yourself, you next have to decide how you view the world. 

Exvangelicals and others redefining their religious beliefs may need to decide on new definitions for “the world.” Do you mean the physical globe and everyone in it? Do you mean the cultural zeitgeist? You are going to have to define terms for yourself, if only for clarity’s sake. 

Personally, I ascribe to “the world” meaning global society, i.e. all the happenings and people in it. The cultural zeitgeist is what the more religious are referring to when they say “the world.” That concerns me slightly less. As Marcus Aurelius himself says, everything changes.

Using my definitions for “the world”, what do you think or feel about them? Think about that in all its details. What would you change? What would you keep? How do you fit in to the world? How would you like to fit in to the world?

Remember, you can fence yourself in, but you cannot forever keep the world out. Too many people over the centuries have tried that. From the Branch Davidian to the Transcendentalists, everyone has attempted a closed, “utopian” society. And failed. Sometimes miserably. 

We’re seeing the effects of one failure play out right now in Ukraine. 

Question 3: Are you appreciating the time you have? 

You must make the most of the present with the aid of reason and justice.

Marcus Aurelius

Life is too short to be caught up in every single problem and care thrown at you. If you’re too caught up in what’s wrong or in trying to make yourself live forever you are missing out on all the smaller joys.

Consider whether you are letting fear or disassociation get in your way. If you are, or you think you are, then perhaps identify your triggers and develop better coping skills. Same if you are stuck in trauma responses. But you’ll never know until you start deeply examining your life and yourself. 

Lifestyle choices can also become a distraction. Are you so worried about one particular ailment that your life revolves around it? We’ve seen for the past two years how people just stopped living life because of one virus. Understandable, but not ideal.

It’s very easy to get caught up in social media drama, the next great catastrophe going on in the world, or in political jargon. Are you letting your emotions surrounding those events interfere with you living your life? 

If so, then it’s time for you to take a step back.

5. Do you have your own thoughts and opinions or are you parroting those around you? 

Do not have the opinion of things that he has who does you wrong, or that he wishes you to have, but look at them as they are in truth.

Marcus Aurelius

Aurelius talks about having your own principles, following reason, and being able to retreat into your own mind. If your mind is a desert, however, that is much more difficult to do. There’s nowhere for you to retreat. 

There’s also no reference point for who you are in relation to other people. If you don’t know who you are and what your own opinions are, then you cannot relate to other people and be authentic. 

Is the image you present representative of who you are? Or is it what you think people what to see of you? Are your opinions your own or are you merely parroting back the latest buzzwords? 

Consider your own principles, what they are, and what they should be. Make sure they are in alignment with what you believe, think, and feel regarding yourself, the world, and your place in it. 

A good way to tell is to observe yourself and your reactions. If you find yourself a little too susceptible to what you’re consuming, then make sure you have a nice, varied mental diet. 

Nothing is more wretched than the man who travels about everywhere […] and strives to conjecture the thoughts of his neighbors without perceiving that it is sufficient to attend to the divinity within him and to revere it sincerely.

Marcus Aurelius 

Are you attending to the divinity within? Aurelius balances his care for external things with the care of internal things. It’s not enough to get your to-do list done. It’s not enough to subsist. Embrace the fullness of being alive and don’t give in to every other person’s opinion of who you should be. 

You can be a good citizen and a good activist and still be little more than a husk. You can be a good neighbor and an exemplary member of the community and still be a horrible human being. If you aren’t caring for the “divinity within” then you really are little more than a machine. 

Take a moment, consider the questions posed, and tend to your own mind. You are worth the investment and the time. 

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